April 2011

Sustainable Cultural Tourism

Susan Guyette

Creating sustainable tourism options in an era of shrinking resources can be viewed as an opportunity. Small-scale linked enterprises, resilient in times of economic fluctuation, support rural areas and traditional cultures, require smaller capital outlay, create a greater number of jobs, and are less expensive to promote. An effective tourism network in New Mexico could create a win/win collaboration between urban and rural communities, providing additional activities and itinerary possibilities. Tourism in rural areas has served as a vital economic resource for creating jobs, often the impetus for preserving rural towns and cultures. The question is, how to consciously incorporate tourism without negatively impacting a community.

Cultural tourism involves a visitor experiencing or having contact with the unique heritage and special character of a place. The exchange of information on lifeways, customs, beliefs, values, language, views of the environment, and other cultural resources is usually uneven. The challenge is to ensure as equitable an exchange takes place, in a manner seen as appropriate by members of the host community.

How can visitors become more conscious and respectful of local cultures? “Green” actions must come from travelers’ own cultural beliefs and growing awareness. Through visitor education, people can learn to make choices that have minimal negative impact and are supportive to local cultures, thus contributing to local sustainability. Learning from other cultures is a critical part of conscious visitation.


Here is the opportunity for NM: while tourism volume and expenditures tend to be in a downturn nationally, international visitation to the U.S. is up nearly 10% and cultural tourism is rising due to current trends of visitors seeking educational and authentic experiences. These trends point to a market niche in NM with great potential for expansion. As Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship chairman Tom Aaegeson pointed out in a recent op-ed, culture is the attraction behind major parts of NM’s economy. Culture accounts for more than 15 percent of the workforce, up to 20 percent of our GDP and government tax revenues in many NM communities (about 5 times higher than in many U.S. cities). In Santa Fe, 38% of annual, new capital inflows are driven by the arts and cultural industries, along with related businesses.

Cultural tourism, of which creative tourism is a part, is the fastest growing tourism market segment in the U.S. One reason for increasing interest in cultural tourism is the trend of visitors evaluating carefully the return for their vacation dollar. National surveys indicate cultural tourists spend more, an average of $994 per trip compared to $611 in the overall tourism market. Shopping, seeking local cuisine, and tours are the categories of highest expenditures. Cultural tourists seek meaningful experiences and enjoy a sense of contributing to the retention of tradition. They also tend to be more respectful of local cultures and environments.

Who benefits and who pays? Growing this economic sector in a sustainable way involves rethinking scale, ownership and impacts. A focus on small-scale enterprises increases opportunities for local ownership. In NM, the traditional cultural business form is family-managed, generous, and based on the authentic experience. Working with cultural values is the foundation for authentic cultural tourism, supporting culturally-based livelihoods. Locally owned small enterprises are one way of reversing rural out-migration.

Tourism works on the basis of collaboration. Literally, the word tourism reflects the idea of a tour, or many stops on a larger itinerary. A visitor on vacation usually does not travel 1,000 miles or more to visit one attraction. (Festivals may be the exception.) Visitors typically planning a five to seven day vacation look for a series of interesting stops and need to know how to link them together. This is the most important, and most often overlooked principle to remember when planning tourism development.


Larger-scale tourism, measured for success in terms of full-time jobs and tax revenues generated, does not provide the best cultural fit for NM since these indicators do not adequately address locally owned economy building and cultural retention. A win/win scenario can be created utilizing the interdependence between tourism and the wider rural economy by emphasizing:

1.Small-scale, linked enterprises

2.Cultural values as central

3.Strategies determined from within communities

4.Authentic experiences

5.Local job creation and ownership

6.Urban/ rural networks

7.Minimal environmental impacts

Urban areas, rather than perceiving themselves as destinations, hold potential as hubs, working in partnership with rural areas to provide referrals and basic services. This approach both enhances urban tourism and increases opportunity for rural areas. Itineraries linking urban and rural businesses, events and experiences are the key for expanding a range of tourism amenities and timing to reach the visitor at the time of vacation planning, prior to the visit.


Cultural tourists are seeking a deeper level of meaning to the visitation experience, such as increased understanding of other cultures through learning experiences, purchasing locally made items and tours. There are many levels of authenticity possible, all holding promise for NM.

The authentic experience is complex to understand and maintain as culture is recreated or represented. Museums can show authentic representation, with authenticity highly dependent upon the degree to which public participation includes an interpretive view of local cultures. When galleries represent art, the extent to which they also present information about the art and the artist, increases the interests of cultural tourists. The recreated or re-enacted cultural setting, such as El Rancho de Las Golondrinas (www.golondrinas.org), a Spanish colonial living history site south of Santa Fe, is an example of authentic representation. Festivals and markets offer other ways to give the visitor a glimpse of local culture without large-scale intrusion to urban neighborhoods and small communities.

Visiting living cultures is another level of authenticity. When communities share with the public their efforts for cultural renewal, such as at Ganados del Valle in Los Ojos (a traditional Hispanic village) or the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum (Pueblo of Pojoaque, www.poehmuseum.com), visitors become excited to see traditions revitalized and enjoy the sense of contributing to organizations that teach time-honored traditions. Community capability to provide information is essential for increasing positive community benefits and decreasing negative impacts to culture and environment.

Attraction to the beauty of the land is an intersection between cultural and eco- or nature tourism. NM offers spectacular landscapes tied to cultural meaning, unique color palettes, and history. Displacement of local people due to visitors “moving in” is a constant issue in NM tourism. Educating visitors as to the cultural impacts caused by in-migration, in a friendly way, can enhance a visitor’s respect for local land retention needs.

One dilemma facing communities relates to how much tourism is possible without eroding authenticity. The answer rests with managing tourism, or guiding tourists to specific places, providing targeted activities for them, providing ways to protect cultural privacy for internal community activities, educating them to be respectful of cultures and the land, and valuing their participation.

The unique appeal of NM is the full range of authentic cultural and ecotourism experiences available. Balancing protection of these experiences, while generating the economic resources to support traditional practices and employment is essential through wise planning and development.


The mindful visitor is respectful and appreciative of local cultures. Communities must educate, both pre-visitation via the internet and with print materials available locally to increase visitor awareness. It is essential to develop information on the art or product and the maker. In my work with communities, we cultivate visitor etiquettes as a part of visitor guides, explain traditional arts and work with artists to develop bio-cards explaining their work and their interpretation as artists. Information for the visitor increases respect for cultural aspects of the artwork, increases a fair monetary exchange, and decreases commodification, or seeing traditional artwork as objects without cultural meaning.

What other support services will bring about a shift to small-scale, locally owned enterprises? The entrepreneurial level, rather than the Small Business Development Administration’s definition of small business, increases employment opportunities. Training needs to be developed to reflect local values, rather than using the conventional corporate model presented in textbooks. Each culture has its own traditional hospitality that needs to be identified and translated into an appropriate contemporary form. Business management training must be adapted to a smaller-scale. Customer service based on cultural values motivates local people to engage with service and to derive more satisfaction from interaction with visitors.

Itinerary development is crucial for urban/rural networks to develop. An itinerary-building web-based tool at the State level would enable visitors to design a unique experience, if a broad range of urban/rural and small-scale/larger scale businesses are allowed to participate.


Small-scale development from within communities encourages sustainable tourism, meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Constant re-assessment of tourism development according to local values and ties to cultural landscapes is central to sustainable management practices.

A paradigm shift toward sustainable tourism not only requires a new method of development; it also requires a shift within travelers themselves regarding beliefs and consumption patterns. Putting attention on the value of local purchasing may allow visitors to take that perspective back to their communities and to become more conscious consumers and community members.

Increasing the range of experiences possible through sustainable practices encourages repeat visitation by informed visitors, a mainstay characteristic of NM tourism.

Susan Guyette, Ph.D. is Métis (Micmac Indian and Acadian French) and a planner (owner of Santa Fe Planning & Research) specializing in cultural centers, cultural tourism and native foods. She is the co-author of Zen Birding (www.zenbirding.com) and the author of Planning for Balanced Development.

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1 thought on “Sustainable Cultural Tourism”

  1. This is a very interesting article that summarizes a lot of what’s beeing discussed now. It would be fantastic to create a viable cultural-sustainable-authentic tour idea by also connecting different travel businesses throughout the state. There are in my view numerous obstacles and it would require a serious commitment including a serious budget. Could this be on the new Tourism Secretary agenda?

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